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Super Bowl 44: The Final Word

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Despite my best efforts, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees are still the two biggest players in this game.  There are other important players: Reggie Bush, Pierre Thomas, Jahri Evans, Carl Nicks, Will Smith, Jonathon Vilma, Darren Sharper, Jabari Greer, Gary Brackett, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Raheem Brock, Charlie Johnson, Jeff Saturday, Joseph Addai, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, Pierre Garcon, Austin Collie, Mike Hart–all of who could collectively decide the game, and we probably wouldn’t even know it.

Still, Manning and Brees are king, and are the storyline with regards to this game.  We will probably know at the end of the day that one guy outplayed the other, and if there’s any justice in the world, that team will win the game.

It would not be right to suggest that these two teams are here exclusively because of their quarterbacks.  They are not.  They both have stronger defenses than they have ever had in the past, highly efficient (and important) kicking games, and the Saints can run the ball on seemingly whoever they want to.  But both the Saints and the Colts have one last game to win–regardless of how and why they are here–and both will rely very heavily on their superstar quarterbacks to get it done.

On top of the responsibility each holds for the performance of their team, this game means so much to each in the historical sense.  I’m sure Peyton Manning doesn’t give two darns about whether he will be considered the greatest quarterback ever to play the game, or merely one of the greatest, but if we’re going to talk about his team, the Indianapolis Colts, in the same breath as the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers this decade, the Colts have to win this game.  Furthermore, while I’m sure Manning wouldn’t give the time of day to anyone who asked him about a third title at this point, Peyton is at an age where the only way he is going to be able to win that many titles is to win this game.  If he has two at age 33, then yeah, three before he retires is quite reasonable.  Getting two titles after age 34 would be practically impossible, and while the smart money is on Peyton winning this year, and then again in 2010 (since the Colts will open next with basically the exact same roster as this year but with a healthy team), the idea that he might not be a multiple time SB champ seems preposterous now, but becomes very realistic if he can’t win this game.

On the other hand, think of what this game feels like from Drew Brees’ perspective.  He doesn’t play for a juggernaut like the Colts.  He plays for the historically irrelevant New Orleans Saints.  While Peyton can sit there and wonder what could have been if he loses this game…what better chance is Brees ever going to have to win a title?  The Colts could be back in this game next year regardless of outcome.  The Saints almost certainly will not be.  Brees is a good enough player as to where he could find himself back in another super bowl as a role player–or perhaps a backup–six or seven years down the road.  If Brees can just win a football game tomorrow, he’s a champion, and a probable hall of famer.  If he fails to win tomorrow, he’s probably not going to retire with a ring, and then he’ll have some trouble getting enough votes to get into Canton–the pull for him will be there regardless.

Joe Montana won zero rings after the age of 33.  Terry Bradshaw didn’t win any after 31.  Tom Brady last won at age 27.  He might win again next year at age 33, but father time is clearly shrinking the window the Pats have, and if he is to win, he’ll have to beat Manning along the way.  Aikman had all the rings he would ever have by 29.

John Elways end-of-career run stands as the lone example of a legend getting his at the end of a long career.  Elway had some great passing seasons near the end, but mostly, it appears the AFC got just weak enough to give him an opening.  And it wasn’t much of an opening, since the Packers were heavily favored in SB32.  But if you can get it down to just one game, anything can happen.  And that’s the attitude that Brees and the Saints need to win.  You’ve had a spectacular season where you’ve exceeded all expectations, even your own.  The team who you will line up against is not the Cardinals or the Vikings or the Panthers, they’re actually an accomplished team.  But they’re not some historic team who can’t be beaten.  The Saints must understand that there is very limited shame in losing, but the biggest factor here is the opportunity.

No NFC team has repeated as conference champions since 1997.  No NFC South team has ever won the division in consecutive years.  The Saints aren’t really even built to sustain a dynasty.  The offense, yes.  Who knows about the defense?  They could be dead last in the league next year.  Or they could be a little bit better.

But the Saints have the opportunity to be the 2002 Bucs in history, or they can go the way of the 2003 Panthers.  Both options are sub-optimal than to simply being where the Indianapolis Colts are.  They’re not even on the same playing field as the Saints.  And that’s the mindset that the Colts need to take to this game.  That team over there: desperate.  We are the best team in the match-up.  That’s the kind of thinking that needs to occur for the favorites.  And then it needs to transfer to the field.

If the Colts leave the Saints in the game, were going to have a hell of a super bowl to watch.  And the Colts might pull it out anyway at the end, but it’s not like the Saints are worried about that.  If the Colts ever let Drew Brees have one drive to win the super bowl, they’ve played their cards wrong.  Because if the Saints get that sort of advantage: their best unit, their best players against the Colts trying to hang on to a slim lead, that’s the way an upset will happen.

It’s such a realistic possibility that there really is no “upset” in this game.  The Colts should win.  But if the Saints are in the game, everyone watching, Colts fans included, will know ahead of time that this game can go either way.  That’s a league-wide phenomenon.  The best computers, the vegas spreads, the former players, no one can sustain a picking rate higher than 2/3s.  That doesn’t mean that there are no such thing as favorites in football, but it does mean that, when you have two teams and only one title, the game should be good.

And unless the Colts just have the winning gameplan right from the first snap, it’s going to be good one.  And it’s going to come down to Brees, the clock, a four point deficit, Manning on the sidelines, super bowl immortality in his grasp–

…and a Kelvin Hayden interception.  Colts 39, Saints 35.

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